‘The UK has a huge dog in this fight. They [GCHQ] are worse than the US.’
So it’s the run-up to general election here in the UK (to be held on 7 May 2015), with all parties (except the Greens who stand little chance of making an electoral impact) racing each other to the bottom in terms of just about everything.
The UK is perhaps the most surveilled country in the so-called ‘free world’, and its spying organization GCHQ has been shown to conduct not only mass and highly intrusive spying on its own citizens, but on the rest of the world. Despite this, and thanks largely to a disinterested right-ring press more worried about scapegoating immigrants, the poor, and the most vulnerable members of society than questioning the status quo, surveillance concerns have not impinged much on the consciousness of the general British population.
Nevertheless, most of the main political parties’ election manifestos do at least have something to say about surveillance …
The Conservative Party (Tories)
The leading partner in the current coalition government, and which despite achieving just 36 percent of the total vote in the 2010 elections (which with a 65.1 percent turnout means only 23.7 percent of eligible voters actually chose it) has enacted some of the most far-ranging and brutal changes to British society since WWII, dramatically reducing public spending by dismantling welfare state, while at the same time indulging the richest member of society, and thereby making the UK the most financially unequal society it has been for decades.
- ‘We must always ensure our outstanding intelligence and security agencies have the powers they need to keep us safe. At the same time, we continue to reject any suggestions of sweeping, authoritarian measures that would threaten our hard-won freedoms.’
- ‘We will improve our response to cyber-crime with reforms to police training and an expansion in the number of volunteer Cyber Specials’’
Given that the government has staunchly defended the legality and appropriateness of GCHQ spying methods, has urged an investigation into the Guardian newspaper’s role in releasing the Edward Snowdon documents, has passed strong data retention legislation (in defiance of the European Court of Justice ruling such legislation illegal), and has recently announced plans to ban encryption, it is obvious that if elected again the Conservative party is intent on expanding the surveillance state and further eroding its citizen’s privacy (for a discussion on its real reasons for wanting to do this, please see here).
The Labour Party (Labour)
Despite the current government’s massive unpopularity, the opposition Labour Party has struggled to harness this dissatisfaction and make any clear headway in electoral polls. In part this is due to the utter charisma vacuum that is leader Ed Miliband (plus distaste at how he backstabbed his own brother on the way to power), but on a deeper level almost certainly reflects a growing disenchantment with a political system where the opposition plays ‘me too!’ to government policies, and seems unable to offer a different, better, vision of how society could be than the hard hearted and self-interested Tories. In short, the overriding feeling towards Labour that if it does win the election, very little is likely to change for the average UK citizen.
- ‘We will strengthen the oversight of our intelligence agencies to make sure the public can continue to have confidence in the vital work that they do to keep us safe.’ No details are given about what this might mean, however, nor any questioning of the necessity of the work they do
- ‘We will consult on creating a statutory requirement for all private companies, to report serious cyber-attacks threatening our national infrastructure
Yawn. As with everything else Labour does, when it comes to ubiquitous surveillance it is clear that nothing is really going to change.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LibDems)
The LibDems have traditionally been seen as ‘the nice party;’ full of fluffy and well-meaning intentions, but with not a chance in hell of ever achieving real power. In a dramatic turn of events at the last election, however, a striking TV performance by leader Nick Clegg saw a surge of interest in the party from an electorate disenchanted with the main two parties, leading to unexpectedly good election results that left the Nick Clegg playing kingmaker when the election resulted in a hung parliament.
Clegg surprised just about everybody by making his party the minority partner in a coalition government with the Conservatives, whom most would have considered to be the LibDem’s natural ideological enemy. As it turned out, in order to work with the majority Tory party, Clegg and the LibDems had to reverse almost all of their election promises, and to compromise their integrity to the point where Clegg is widely regarded as the ‘least popular party leader in modern history.’
- Promise of a ‘Digital Rights Bill’ aimed at preventing mandatory data retention by ISP’s, protecting citizen’s privacy, and preventing exploitation of data by the private sector
- Promise of a ‘Second Freedoms Bill’ aimed at ‘restoring the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness’
- However, the following statement does not offer much confidence that the LibDem’s have any real intention of reining in the surveillance state,‘Communications Data has been used in 95% of all serious organised crime cases handled by the Crown Prosecution Service. It has been used in every major Security Service counter-terrorism investigation over the last decade. It is particularly important for targeting serious criminals, including drug dealers, paedophiles and fraudsters. It has also been used to stop crimes in action and save lives, and to prevent miscarriages of justice.’
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what the LibDem’s policies are or aren’t, because in siding with the devil forming a coalition government with the Conservative Party, with all the necessary compromises and backtracking on election promises this entailed, it has lost all credibility with the British public, and Nick Clegg has likely fatally damaged his own party’s chances of ever being a meaningful force at the ballot box again.
UK Independence Party (UKIP)
This party of bigots and racists eccentrics led by charismatic and self-styles ‘outsider’ Nigel Farge (who polished his ‘outsider’ credentials by being educated in an exclusive private school, then pursuing a career as a City of London investment banker, and whose party now is bankrolled by big business), is even more firmly establishment than the Tories, and even needing to discuss UKIP in relation to the UK general elections is deeply depressing.
UKIP’s manifesto does not mention surveillance, instead being more concerned with exiting the EU and rejecting the European Convention on Human Rights (pesky human rights!). However, given that UKIP is a right-wing, deeply pro-establishment party (regardless of its ‘maverick’ image), I feel it safe to imagine that it is ‘pro-surveillance’, should it stop wanting to expel foreigners long enough to think about such things.
To be honest, the mere existence of UKIP, let alone the fact that it may win some parliamentary seats depresses me so much that I would rather not discuss it further (in fact oversaturated media coverage of Farage and his party is in large part responsible for its current popularity, so let’s just move along…)
The Green Party (Greens)
A party that actually cares about the environment, redressing inequality of wealth, and promoting good health care, housing, and education for everybody? Blimey! Does anyone take it seriously? Nah… not really, although, there has been a surge in support as liberal (small ’l’) and lefty voters, appalled at rising support for UKIP and the Tory’s brutal attack on just about everybody who is not white and wealthy, but unable to bring themselves to back a Labour Party incapable of challenging the right-leaning status-quo view that permeates all mainstream political discourse, look for an alternative means of expression.
- ‘We would: Oppose any case for secret unaccountable mass surveillance of the type exposed by Edward Snowden. We do accept that government law enforcement agencies may occasionally need to intercept communications in special circumstances. Such specific surveillance should be proportionate, necessary, effective and within the rule of law, with independent judicial approval and genuine parliamentary oversight
- Replace the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA)
- ‘Follow human rights judgements limiting surveillance and data retention in full’
- ‘Support the EU’s proposals to strengthen data protection laws against opposition from large US-data-driven companies’
- ‘Oppose the sale of personal data, such as health or tax records, for commercial or other ends
- and more…
Yay! Go the Greens! It’s just a shame that most voters regard them as either well-meaning but hopeless idealists who couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag, or dangerous radicals (who also couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag). Sigh.
And politicians wonder why nobody can be bothered to vote anymore! Given the choice between a punch in the face or a kick in the balls, an increasingly large number of Britons would rather just stay at home.
When it comes to surveillance, it is very unlikely that any meaningful reform will be enacted following the elections, and if the Tories (and very possibly also Labour) serve for another term then we can instead expect an increase in surveillance and further attacks on our rights to privacy.
If we want to protect our privacy, we cannot rely on others (let alone our government) to do this for us. Using strong end-to-end open source encryption and robust privacy services such no logs VPN and Tor, we can at least prevent ourselves being subject to the kind of ubiquitous dragnet surveillance that has become a routine feature of day-to-day life.
Please note at all opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent those of either BestVPN or other members of the BestVPN staff. I am also aware that I have not not included the SNP and Plaid Cymru in this survey. This is not because I dismiss these parties (I am myself Scottish although I live in England), but because they are primarily regional in nature, and their policies are directed towards regional interests.